Richard Glossip is almost certainly an innocent man. In the years since police first accused him of murder in 1997, the entire case against Glossip has completely fallen apart. His first trial was tainted by so much prosecutorial misconduct and so many procedural errors that the state judiciary threw out his conviction. His second trial was equally marred by false testimony and mishandled evidence. Republican state legislators have demanded clemency for Glossip, convinced he is innocent. His execution has been scheduled and called off seven times. Earlier this month, Oklahoma’s Republican attorney general, Gentner Drummond, even took the extraordinary step of asking the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to vacate his conviction and death sentence, admitting that his second trial was “unfair and unreliable.”
On Thursday, the court refused. In a unanimous opinion, the court waved away overwhelming evidence of innocence and decided that, actually, Glossip is guilty—and must be put to death on May 18. The decision makes a sadistic mockery of the judiciary’s supposed role as a guardian of individual liberties. It favors vengeance over justice. Sadly, it aligns with the current U.S. Supreme Court’s merciless enthusiasm for the swift execution of people who are probably innocent.
The outline of Glossip’s saga goes like this: In 1997, Justin Sneed murdered Barry Van Treese, the owner of the motel where Sneed worked as a handyman. A meth addict with a history of criminal violence, Sneed could not deny his role as the killer. But during interrogation, prosecutors relentlessly pushed the theory that Glossip, who managed the motel, had masterminded the murder. Sneed eventually parroted this story, though his explanation of Glossip’s motive shifted over time and never made sense. Still, Sneed cut a deal with police and prosecutors to avoid a death sentence in exchange for testifying against his co-defendant. So Sneed got life in prison while Glossip, who refused a plea bargain, got a death sentence.
In 2001, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals tossed that sentence based on Glossip’s lawyer’s failure to contest the “extremely weak” evidence. So Glossip got a second trial in 2004. But prosecutors had destroyed key evidence that might have proved exculpatory five years before this new trial. Instead of seeing that evidence, the jury heard false testimony from Sneed, who lied to cover up his serious psychiatric condition and lithium treatment. Prosecutors did not reveal this history to Glossip, denying him the opportunity to impeach the star witness. The jury convicted and recommended death.
In letters to his lawyers, Sneed strongly suggested that he wanted to recant his testimony. And in the years since, a mountain of new exculpatory evidence has come to light. Much of this information was documented in a 343-page report commissioned by the Oklahoma Legislature and released in 2022, which concluded that the evidence “cast grave doubt as to the integrity of Glossip’s murder conviction and death sentence.” It was too much for Drummond, the attorney general, who finally threw the state behind Glossip’s quest for a new trial on April 6.
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals took just 14 days to rule against him. Justice David B. Lewis’ unanimous opinion rejected much of the exonerative evidence as insufficient to prove “actual innocence.” He dismissed the rest on the grounds that it “could have been presented much earlier,” and thus cannot be considered now. And he blamed Glossip’s lawyer for failing to uncover the fact that Sneed lied on the stand about his mental illness. Lewis asserted that this falsehood was “not knowingly concealed by the prosecution,” just conveniently omitted. (Prosecutors had evidence of Sneed’s condition in their notes but failed to turn it over to Glossip.) And the justice swept away all these problems as “not material under the law.”
Even more perverse was Justice Gary L. Lumpkin’s self-congratulatory concurrence, a rebuke to the many people who’ve fought to prove Glossip’s innocence. Declaring that Oklahoma must be “a government of laws and not of man,” Lumpkin praised the court for “not depending on the various opinions voiced by men,” but instead “applying the laws.” The “finality” of a criminal case is “a foundational principle of our justice system,” he thundered. And preserving Glossip’s sentence mattered far more than sparing his life.
Both Lewis and Lumpkin’s opinions have a chilling tone of contempt for Glossip and his many defenders. At no point do the justices acknowledge the defendant’s humanity, his suffering over the decades, his multiple last meals and near-misses with the execution chamber. The majority opinion adopted an almost gloating tone of self-satisfaction at the court’s ability to analyze the case with cold logic rather than heated passion. The court sounded exasperated by the fact that Glossip has not yet been executed and impatient for his demise.
This tone is all too familiar. It echoes nearly every U.S. Supreme Court decision over the last five years involving capital punishment. Justice Neil Gorsuch’s death penalty opinions casually discuss defendants as if they are subhuman, blithely musing about the state’s power to torture inmates to death. Justice Clarence Thomas infamously begins such opinions with a gruesome account of the alleged crime as if to imply that the defendant is a violent animal undeserving of any sympathy. Just last term, Thomas wrote an opinion allowing states to execute innocent people, no matter how unjust their sentence, in the interest of “finality.” The justice explained that federal courts must show “respect”—not for defendants, but for the “state procedural rules” that bar them from contesting their sentences. This flippant attitude infects the conservative justices’ rhetoric: On Wednesday, Justice Samuel Alito joked about a death row inmate, quipping that his execution date “concentrate[d] his mind wonderfully.” That inmate, Rodney Reed, is very likely innocent.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court is Glossip’s only remaining hope for judicial relief. His lawyers have vowed to appeal, but the odds are bleak. SCOTUS already greenlit Glossip’s execution once, in a 2015 decision about the constitutionality of lethal injection. The court was uninterested in his claims of innocence then, and it’s far more conservative today. In January, SCOTUS did send a strong message to the Texas judiciary that it should allow the retrial of a defendant at the request of the district attorney, who no longer trusted his conviction. But that case involved a notorious forensic lab scandal that directly tainted the conviction; it’s unclear whether SCOTUS will grant the same courtesy here, where there’s no single factor that decisively punctures the guilty verdict.
Glossip may have more success at Oklahoma’s parole board, especially if Drummond supports his plea for a commutation to life without parole. A life behind bars, of course, remains a profoundly unjust penalty for a man who committed no crime. But the alternative is a court-mandated death on May 18—an execution that the state’s chief law enforcement officer does not even want.
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals’ cruelty lies not only in its refusal to help Glossip, but also in its zeal to overrule prosecutors’ mercy and orchestrate his execution itself. A more sensible SCOTUS would recognize that killing a man against the wishes of the state is grievously unconstitutional. The SCOTUS we have is more likely to cheer along his death.